Monday, August 30, 2010

Khoj 2 - seems bigger not better !

How is it INDIA’s got talent if the auditions are only conducted in NORTH India?

Why is the editing so bad that you miss a lot of the good performances and never the bad performances?

Why is it important to introduce edited and induced audience-clapping clips at precisely the wrong places to show the viewer blatantly that the ability to copy (other such shows) lies in the execution?

Why do Nikil and Ayushman wear pink shirts and even pinker ties?

Why are only acts like singing and dancing (that would probably increase TRP rating) chosen over other skills when the hosts keep saying in every living moment that the show is about hunting a unique talent from India ?

Why is that anytime there is a contestant from Punjab, Kirron Kher (can never remember the numerologically altered spelling), a judge who has to be impartial, gets all excited even if they are not as talented?

Why does Sajid Khan say ‘I gave you a standing ovation or I salute you’ as if it matters? I can’t recall any decent movie that he has written or directed. Oh..well, at least he doesn’t cry every chance he gets like Sekhar Kapoor.

Why does he make much ado about kids being exposed to violence when he himself comes from the movie industry that cares least about what is shown in a movie?

And finally why don’t I look for something better to do other than pose some rhetorical questions about a mediocre TV show that is only worth watching for some of their unbelievably talented participants ?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Raksha Bandan

My first brush with Raksha Bandan was in school, when I was 10 years old. My Marwadi classmate came to school with a brightly colored red and golden band, lavishly decorated with pearl strings tied to his wrist. Even at that age, with no idea whatsoever of fashion, it still felt weird to see a boy wearing something like this. None of my friends seemed to know what it was. I had to wait until lunch to abate my curiosity and asked the Marwadi girl in another section about it and her words were "Its Raksha Bandan, his sister tied it (Rakhi) to his wrist and he will give her a gift". I was left wondering why we didn't have something like that where I could get my presents from my brothers (I included my cousins too :D) in exchange for Rakhis.

It wasn't until I was 12 that I learnt the true meaning, weirdly from an old South Indian movie, Bharatha Vilas. Shivaji suspects his neighbour's son of carrying on with his daughter when they both solemnly swear that nothing is going on. The truth is revealed only when his neighbour's son joins the army and writes to Shivaji's daughter with a Rakhi, explaining Raksha Bandan and wishing that she was there to tie it to his wrist. I can still recall the letter and it was beautifully written describing how girls were tying Rakhis to army soldiers and praying for their welfare and needless to say, with Shivaji reading it, with all the right pauses to highlight the emotions, its not something that I would forget soon.

At 15, Raksha Bandan was seen in quite a different light in school. Most guys would try (in vain) to avoid the girls they have a crush on, in fear of being accosted by them with a Rakhi and girls (mean devils that they are :D) determined to get those guys off their backs will do all they can to tie the pink band (adding insult to injury) to their wrists !

I never really believed in making anyone a 'brother' by tying a Rakhi...somehow it seemed meaningless to try and kindle brotherly feelings by force and those who really were close like brothers needed no wrist-band affirmations ! Well, if everyone thought the same way, it would indeed be boring...and so to satisfy one such 'brother' (who actually proudly showed off his Rakhis) I borrowed one from a friend and proceeded to his class room. On the way, I saw a guy, a senior, who I was acquainted with, approaching me from the other end of the corridor. As he came closer, I saw a look of horror on his face and noticed that he was staring at the Rakhi and very soon, he sprinted straight for the stairs. After the completely bewildering moment, I proceeded to tie it to my 'brother'. The guy noticed it from the next floor and gave me a sheepish grin. I am sure he had plans on letting me know that he liked me but I am equally sure that this was not one of them !

The concept of using Raksha Bandan as a get-out-of-unwanted-crushes card was pushed to a different level in Nerukku Ner when Vijay makes Kousalya confess that she likes him by her refusal to tie a Rakhi to him. Oh..well..this isn't the first time that people and movies make a mockery of a nice tradition.

I used to wonder if there was a South Indian equivalent when I remembered kakka pidi-kanu pidi, where sisters pray for their brothers' well being and in-turn get gifts from them.

After the 'Rakhi' wave receded, the next one was the 'friendship bands' and those stories would have to wait until another time....

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Too early to discuss Pension ? not really !

I earned my first-ever salary in Germany. There is a lot of thrill, happiness and sense of accomplishment when you get your first paycheck. All this didn’t last long for me when I realized that my net salary was nearly half the gross salary (Reminded me of Rachel in Friends getting her first paycheck and exclaiming "who the heck is FICA and why is he getting all my money?"). Although I had heard enough about the tax and pension system in Germany, I was still unprepared when I saw the numbers in black and white.

But very soon I stopped complaining because of the benefits that one gets from the system (I need another post to explain those). When it comes to the pension system, one of the things I always wondered about was what would happen to my share since I don’t intend to stay in Germany until retirement.

I had so many questions in mind that I tried to get the information from the Deutsche Rentenversicherung website. After spending a few hours, I realized that I needed to talk to someone there if I needed comprehensive details.

There is a very easy of getting an appointment at the Beratungsstelle. This can be done online and there are many centres to choose from in the same city and of course, its free advice !

I had my appointment and there was a nice gentleman who spent 45 minutes answering all my questions and here is a brief summary of all the salient points.

Note that the post is for those living in Germany, so using the appropriate German words will offer more clarity than using their English counterparts.

How does the system work ?
Every month both the employer and you pay money into the pension system (will be shown as Rentenversicherung in your salary slip). At 67*, when you retire, depending on how long you have worked and how much you have earned you get a monthly pension.

Any basic requirement ?
The basic premise for getting any benefit from the pension system is that you have contributed to the system for at least 60 months. Anything less than that simply means you have given that money away.

Rentenversicherungsverlauf (RVV)
This gives details about the number of months you had paid into the system and the current amount in your pension account. You can ask for this online using your Sozialversicherungsnummer (social security number), usually in the format
nn A DOB nnn (n-number A-First letter of your first name, DOB – date of birth)

This will be sent to you by post. If you have moved and have not changed your address at the Burgerbüro then you can call and ask for this to be sent to your actual address.

!!!! For those who want to leave Germany for good, check the RVV. If you have been here for 58 months, for example, then it obviously makes sense to extend your stay by 2 more months !!!!

How are gaps in employment treated?
If you are unemployed (Arbeitslos) or if you are on maternity leave (Mutterschaftsurlaub or Elternzeit), this will not affect your pension payments. In the former case, the Arbeitsamt will pay towards your pension account and in the latter case, you not only get the usual pension amount but also an added bonus for each child.

This is why it is extremely important to register as 'arbeitssuchend' or 'arbeitslos' (looking for a job) at the 'Arbeitsamt' at the right time.

Benefits ?
You can either opt for getting pension when you retire (even if you don’t live in Germany) or get the money in your account as a lumpsum payment 2 years after you leave Germany for good.

Which is the better option ?
This depends purely on your financial situation and your investments. Before you get the lumpsum payment, make sure you do have some backup for when you retire. Also check if the amount you will get as pension makes sense in the long run (taking inflation and exchange rate into account).

Does visa influence the Lumpsum payment ?
Getting it back is not influenced by the kind of visa you have (befristete Aufenthaltserlaubis, Niederlassungserlaubnis, Daueraufenthalt etc.) !!! If you have German citizenship, there is no way of getting the lumpsum payment !!!

Does where I go after leaving Germany matter ?
Yes,You can get the money back if and only if Germany has an understanding (treaty) with that country (also known as Sozailversicherungsabkommen). India is one of them and the list of countries can be found here . If you go to any other country, for example in the EU, you can only opt for getting pension at retirement. Germany does not allow the money in your pension account to be transferred to the country you move to, even if it is within the EU.

Is this lumpsum payment taxable ?
No (phew…for once…something is not taxable)

How do I file for it?
Best way is to go to the DRV and to fill out the form, go home, wait for 2 yrs and then send it to them with an account number in India or elsewhere (bank charges apply). Using a Rentenberater (private consultant or auditor) is not really necessary. The 2 years time period is important; if you file before that, your claim will be rejected.

What about private Altersvorsorge (private retirement plan)?
This should be dealt with separately and not with the Rentenversicherung. Depending on the policy, the conditions vary. The easiest option is to sell the policy (in which case you will get the Rückkaufswert only) when you leave Germany.

*In general, retirement age is 67. But you can retire early under certain conditions.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It was Sunday...

...morning. There is a joy in waking up on Sunday morning realizing that nothing you do today is governed by a schedule and that you can lie in bed for another hour even if you are not sleepy. But my reverie was abruptly disturbed by a flurry of activity, as my brain combated the fogginess and finally saw 2 kids running here and there with books, crayons, tiffin boxes and water bottles. With the look of incomprehension plastered all over my sleepy face, I slowly get up to see another person in the dining room serving food and yet another person breaking fast. Then it dawned on me, Sunday is a working day and the weekend was over….because I was in Dubai (I bet they have Sunday blues!) and was sleeping in Suja akka’s house! Only when she said ‘don’t you have a flight to catch?’ I realized that my fri-sat weekend in Dubai was over and I should get ready to go to the airport.

Rewind to the beginning of the weekend (imagine revolving concentric circles and put on your retrospective look)...Thursday evening when I landed...

Skyscrapers everywhere, right from those designed like pyramids to the most popular Burj Khalifa and Jumeirah Towers….oddly though, I also saw ‘To let’ advertisements on most of them. No takers, apparently!

Malls around every corner, well, well, when the temperature is 45 deg C and there is nothing much to do, shopping or even window shopping in an air conditioned mall with occasional breaks for food or drink seems like a good alternative. But one does get tired of it at some point and so some wise ones decided to differentiate each mall from the other with different forms of luxury and attractions – way to go ! One had plush carpets in the waiting area that would put 5 star hotels to shame when the other had exquisite ceilings. The Dubai mall, one of the largest in the world, with its aquarium and underwater attractions is definitely a great way to while away one’s afternoon.

What do you do when you get sick of the air conditioning and want some fresh air but cannot brave the heat? You hit the beach! Thanks to the crystal clear and cool water and the tourist-friendly beach (loved the pathway from the beach to the parking lot as well as the well positioned taps to wash the sand off your legs before stepping into your luxury car).

And then comes the souq, souq, souq or the markets (also known as Souk) where one can find clothes, spices, nuts

and of course, lots and lots of gold. Infact, seeing all the gold strewn about carelessly kind of makes the mind question if its actually gold !

Right from the gold model of Burj Khalifa to half kilo bangles, everyone seems to think big and pay big! I was quite taken aback by a few locals handing over bags of cash for some purchase. No wonder the use of a credit card incurs an additional 6-8% charge!

Desis always need one thing more than anything else in any place they visit…food…and that is available aplenty in Dubai and for astonishingly low prices. Right from Bombay chaat to kuzhi paniyaram, I managed to taste everything during the weekend (and hoped against hope that the high temperatures would enable me to sweat off the excess calories!)

And of course there is a temple that can be reached by a small but wonderful boat ride (also called an abra) across the Dubai creek and I was really excited to see ‘Perumal poo kadai’ and other small shops typically found close to a temple creating a very realistic mini ‘India’ in that area.

And there are the occasional interesting reminders that you really are in a different country with a completely different culture
- Bridal showroom advertising wedding clothes only in black (jeweled burqas* and abayas*)! I chuckled heartily imagining my mother’s look at seeing such a place (until date, I do not have a single sari with black even remotely in it!)
- Sign boards asking people to dress decently (not that everyone cared)
- Separate queues for men and women everywhere
- Ridiculously cheap fuel (cheaper than drinking water actually!)
- Unbelievably crime free that people joke that you can leave your wallet in the middle of the road and still find it intact after an hour ! (it’s a two edged thing actually, even the simplest crime has severe punishments, so you might want to watch what you are doing)

Ads about Dubai tourism boasted of having people from 160 different countries… what else can one expect from a country with more than 80% expats and 0% tax? While the 0% tax drives everyone (especially those from Europe) crazy, the sobering fact comes in the form of ‘no bankruptcy declaration possible’ which means one toe outside the line would put you behind bars.

Hmm...well...I don’t live there, so I blissfully forgot the sobering fact and enjoyed everything there was! Tamam :D !

*Abaya: The long flowing black gown worn by women
*Burqa: the cloth covering the head and the metallic coloured object used to cover part of the face

Monday, August 9, 2010

Deutsche Bahn has a lot to learn !

I was at the station waiting in queue at the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) ticket counter. A Chinese guy with a huge rucksack came running and he was puffing and panting and he came to me and before he could open his mouth, I decided to save him some trouble and asked him to go ahead in the queue. He was still breathless when he got to the counter and I could hear him explain to the lady in hurried gasps that he forgot to bring the print-out of his online ticket but he had the ticket reference number and the credit card he used to book the ticket with and he asked her if she could print it for him**.

The blonde woman at the counter just looked at him with no expression and said ‘Nein. Nicht möglich’ (no, not possible) without the slightest regard for his condition (he was still panting and it looked like his train was going to leave in a few minutes). I was so annoyed at her indifference that I left the counter and decided to come back another time when a slightly more considerate person becomes available. I observed the guy then run towards the train, approach the TTR and come back with a dejected look on his face. He was still a little out of breath; I felt really bad for the guy and the least I could do was offer him some water.

He told me that he asked the TTR if it was ok to travel without the printout if he can show the ticket as a .pdf on his laptop. Apparently the TTR refused in a very German I-will-stick-to-rules-come-what-may manner. He went on to explain that the next train was only 1.5 hours later and he would have to spend at least 60 euro for a new ticket (not to mention the current one being a complete waste since he will not get any refund) and this 1.5 hour delay was going to jeopardize his onward journey. The guy woefully adds that he has been using Deutsche Bahn for 7 years now on a bi-weekly basis. For this treatment of a long-time customer, all I could do was sympathize with him and wish him luck.

For all the efficiency the Deutsche Bahn boasts of, they could make this process simple:
- by allowing people to print tickets out from the ticket machines using the reference number (by charging a small fee, they can make sure that people use it only occasionally and not all the time)
- by allowing people to show .pdf with a valid id (at the cost of a fine, if this will incur extra administrative work)
- and finally by making their employees behave with some basic human courtesy even if they are incapable of providing “friendly customer service” (customer service in general is extremely poor in Germany when compared to India or the US. To be fair, their definition of customer services is providing something for a fee and not a tad bit more).

With more and more trains failing to live up to the ‘German punctuality standards’ and with such customer service, the Deutsche Bahn is definitely not going to make more money by simply offering discounted prices.

**For those of you not familiar with the procedure, the online ticket usually has a 6 digit reference number using which you can access the ticket at anytime before your journey and you always have to have an id (the credit card or a rail pass) to go with it

Photo copyright: The collage is mine but the photo with the TTR is from google search
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